Self-evaluation: What makes a good school?

Written by: Archie McGlynn | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier/MA Education

What makes a good school? Archie McGlynn, former chief inspector of schools in Scotland, offers his litmus test and 10 self-evaluation questions for your whole staff

What is good about schools? Despite the impact of culture and context on judgements, there is a solid core of generally undisputed characteristics that embody good schools.

We prefer, for example, orderly to disorderly schools, well-managed to badly managed schools, schools in which pupils show progress over time, and schools in which teachers monitor how well their pupils are doing.

We believe that students should feel safe in good schools and all are treated fairly. We are in favour of an education which emphasises respect for the dignity of every person in the school community. We prefer schools which provide an all-round, holistic education to schools that are narrowly focused.

Good schools believe that parents are valued co-educators and that children learn best when there is some form of bridge between home and school learning.

While schools will have differing experiences of self-evaluation and come from different cultural and contextual backgrounds, all are committed in 2018 to developing their understanding and practice of self-evaluation leading to school improvement. Moreover, my experience suggests that there are criteria which are common to almost all schools in the pursuit of school improvement.

What are my criteria for a good school?

School leaders (and parents) often invite me to reflect on my experience of working with schools in different countries of the world. There are people who like to make a great mystery of school self-evaluation, but for me there is no mystique about it. A straightforward way that has worked for me over many years is to pursue, and tease out, the school’s answers (and evidence) to a set of questions:

  • Do you question and scrutinise on a regular basis the way you do things in your school?
  • Do you find a niche, a place, for teachers, students and parents whose ideas are not always in agreement with the official view, and who pose the “why” question?
  • Are you confident in approaching challenges, seeing them as opportunities, or do you groan every time there are changes brought about by those beyond your school?
  • Do you look beyond the school gate for inspiration, embracing ideas from beyond the school, or are you inward-looking?
  • Do you believe that all students in your school can be successful?
  • Do teachers, as well as students, “learn” in your school?
  • Is the school community committed to the school vision and values?
  • Is the quality of learning and teaching the number one priority in your school?
  • Above all, do you like coming through the school gates every day?
  • Do you, as a school, in Mother Teresa’s words “give till it hurts”?

How do you measure up to my criteria?

During critical friend reviews of schools on the topic of “how good is our school”, I have often based a staff development half-day around these 10 questions.

I like to evoke responses across the whole teaching staff via a learning method which I call the carousel, a method which can be flexible to meet the particular needs of individual schools (for example, taking account of size, ethos, stage of self-evaluation). If we assume that there are 80 teachers, I divide the room (usually the school hall or equivalent) in two, setting out five tables with eight teachers to a table, in each half in a carousel style.

Each table team is given one of the 10 questions which is displayed prominently on a large poster sheet which is laid out on the table. Teachers are invited to draw a small circle in the middle of the poster and stand ready at the table with a coloured pen in hand.

They are invited to write, scribble or draw (individually) – outside the circle – their first reactions, their “gut feeling” in responding to the question in front of them. After around one to two minutes, they are invited to move clockwise to the next table to repeat the activity with a new question.

Once teachers have completed the carousel in their half of the room, they return to their home or starting table. So far the learning activity has focused on teachers giving their own views. They are now invited to work together to find the common ground in the many responses in the graffiti poster for their table question.

The aim is to agree a list of four or five points which best sum up the overall response of the 40 teachers to each of the questions. There are different ways of moving forward but one way is what I call “the Art Gallery” whereby the 10 colourful, usually graffiti-like posters, are displayed around the room so that teachers can walk around sharing and discussing as they go (an informal but structured approach).

After a break, each table presents in two minutes the key points which are set up on a whiteboard or equivalent, covering all 10 questions. The facilitators (usually two) keep the sharing flowing and invite discussion here and there.

The next stage is to continue in newly formed groups of eight to scrutinise the responses and come up with an overall view of the school and then share together in plenary.

Like blood pressure measurement, school self-evaluation is not a one-off – the follow up is crucial and needs to be taken forward by the school’s quality or school improvement group or equivalent. The aim should be to work towards a shared belief on, for example:

  • Where do we stand now, at this point?
  • Where are the positives?
  • Where are the common issues and concerns?
  • Where do we want to go from here?
  • How best to get there?

In search of a good school – points of focus

My experience of the follow up discussion with school leaders suggests that there are probably four main points of focus which provide the essential constituents of a good school.

At the centre is pupil learning because it is inarguably the central purpose of school education. At the second level is school culture, that is the climate and conditions that not only enable pupil learning to flourish but also sustains staff learning.

The third level is leadership, the direction and driving force which creates and maintains the culture. But none of these can be evaluated in any meaningful sense without reference to the wider context, the fourth point of focus, in which they operate. Leadership has to be responsive to the needs and expectations of both the local and the wider school community.

A conclusion – and the litmus test

Recently I carried out two “critical friend” school reviews, one with a long history in Hong Kong, and the other of an international school with a short history in Singapore. Allow me to draw together the main conclusions of the two reports and invite school leaders to assess to what extent their schools capture the essence of a good school.

“In this school there is a feeling of belonging, a sense of being part of a living community with shared values and aspirations. This bond embraces the past and the future. Expectations are high here, and there is no room for complacency. While there is intense pressure which comes from being part of an Asian culture that emphasises academic success, there is a pleasing awareness that life and work are about balance. Student learning is number one here and education is alive here. Staff and students enjoy being part of the school – the litmus test of “a good school” is that pupils and staff like coming through the school gate every day.”

  • Archie McGlynn is an independent education consultant. He is founder-director of the Hong Kong Schools Self-evaluation Network (2004-2015) and founder-director of the Hong Kong Scotland School Improvement Partnership. His book, co-authored with Professor John Macbeath, entitled Self-evaluation: What’s in it for schools, has been translated into Swedish, Italian and Slovene. Archie was formerly HM chief inspector of schools (Scotland) where he put in place How Good is Our School, self-evaluation guidelines.


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